Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) told Jewish community activists Dec. 13 that he will fight against the confirmation of his fellow senator, Republican Jeff Sessions of Alabama, to become the United States attorney general.
Declaring Sessions to be “an outlier” in the bipartisan battle for criminal justice reform, Booker said he was “outraged” by Sessions’s nomination to become the country’s top law enforcement officer, declaring his opposition during a half-hour conference call with members of the national Jewish Council on Public Affairs.
The call, which connected directors and members of Jewish community relations councils across the country, was intended to guide Jewish organizations in pressing for changes in mandatory minimum sentences and mass incarceration of black and Latino young people, and for juvenile justice and police reform.
Booker said that, “with a stroke of a pen,” Sessions could undo the accomplishments of President Barack Obama’s two attorneys general, Eric Holder and Loretta Lynch, that have helped lower mandatory minimum sentences and aided people in immigration detention centers.
“We had two very good attorneys general in a row. They really were partners in criminal justice reform,” said Booker. “That is not Jeff Sessions’s belief. It is one of the reasons I am so outraged by the pick. He is against the bipartisan efforts for criminal justice reform which are going on in the Senate, and he will have a very powerful position from which to fight us. So now I’m very worried about what he may choose to do, and it is one of the reasons I am gearing up for a confirmation fight in the months to come.”
Noting that President-elect Donald Trump has “pretty much been mute on these kinds of issues,” Booker said that the incoming president campaigned on the issue of “law and order, which really frustrates me, because that’s not America’s highest aspiration. We seek justice, which is greater than law and order.”
One bill Booker has cosponsored in Congress that has never been put to a vote seeks to reduce mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenses and penalizing possessors of crack cocaine — most often people of color — with the same punishments for predominantly white users of powdered cocaine.
Another bipartisan piece of legislation Booker is backing would eliminate nonviolent drug offenders from being required to admit arrest records when they apply for jobs. He called the 800 percent increase in the federal prison population since the 1980s “one of America’s great shames. There are more people in jail today for nonviolent drug crimes than there were in jail for all offenses in the 1970s,” noting that the U.S. has only 5 percent of the world’s population but 25 percent of the world’s incarcerated people.
Citing the inherent inequities among those behind bars, he said the criminal justice system “sadly preys upon the poor, the mentally ill, the sexually assaulted, the minorities,” although blacks and white use and deal illegal drugs at the same rates. “But if you’re black in America, you’re almost four times more likely to be arrested for drug use or drug dealing than if you’re white.”
Booker said the current inequities in criminal justice are “making us less safe as a country because people leave prisons more dangerous and hardened as criminals than when they first entered, and those placed in solitary confinement — most notably children — become mentally ill.”
He said an overwhelming percentage of those arrested for nonviolent drug crimes wind up in prison because they are encouraged by overworked court-appointed lawyers to plead guilty. As a result, sometimes people who are in fact not guilty wind up spending years behind bars for crimes they did not commit, he said.
Booker urged his listeners to focus much of their efforts on changes at the state level because 80 percent of the people behind bars are in state — not federal — prisons.
In answer to a question from JCPA chair Cheryl Fishbein, who moderated the call, Booker said he is a strong opponent of privately run prisons. “The profit motive there creates some perverse incentives,” he said. They seek “as much of a flow of people into their prisons as possible” and lack accountability for handling abuses and failing to rehabilitate inmates.
Asked about the repairing what Fishbein called the “faded unity” between black and Jewish communities since the civil rights movement of the 1960s, Booker said, “All across our country right now blacks and Jews are in partnership on tremendous things” dealing with justice.
“One of the powers of Judaism and the black-Jewish coalition has been Jews saying, ‘I’m going to dive in head-first to the cause of justice in this country,’” he said.
“When African-Americans are marching for their rights and look to their left and there is a Jewish person marching and shouting louder than they are, that’s Judaism at its best.”
Urging callers to celebrate “their Jewish faith and ideals,” the senator said, “In Christianity or Islam there is an agenda to convert folks. Judaism is like, ‘You know what? I’m not trying to covert people. I’m just trying to serve this world for the greater cause of justice.’ There is a beauty in that.”
“The world needs Jews,” he said. “It desperately needs Jewish people who are living their hesed, who are living their tzedaka. Yasher koach — continue in strength doing what you are doing.”